He is sorry.

Four days before Christmas Quintin Dailey tied an ugly noose around his neck and wore it for six months, walking quietly and somehow managing not to step off the edge of the earth.

Last month they took the noose off. In less than a week Dailey, rejoicing in his rediscovered freedom, tied it back on. Now he is sorry, he says. Sorry for what he did; sorry for what he said. It may be too late.

"The whole situation is insane," said his agent, attorney Bob Woolf. "It's almost developed into some kind of lynching."

"I am sorry," said Quintin Dailey by telephone from California. "And I am truly remorseful."

Dailey is a superbly gifted basketball player. As a 6-foot-3 junior at the University of San Francisco, he was, in the estimation of the man who made such decisions for the Golden State Warriors, the best guard available to this year's NBA draft.

Golden State, drafting 14th, never got the chance. Dailey went seventh on June 29, the top pick of the guard-hungry Chicago Bulls.

It delighted Dailey, who had doubts he would be picked in the top 10. They were doubts not about his skill, but about another kind of fitness.

Less than a week before the draft, Dailey, all-America product of Cardinal Gibbons High in Baltimore and Jesuit-run USF, was sentenced to three years probation after pleading guilty to assaulting a USF nursing student "with force likely to commit great bodily harm," according to his attorney, George Walker. With the guilty plea, Walker said, the court dropped companion charges of assault with intent to rape, assault with intent to commit oral copulation and false imprisonment.

The charges stemmed from Dec. 21, when Dailey at 3:45 a.m. entered the nursing student's room in the coed dorm where he also lived and assaulted her until dawn.

Dailey, 21, had no hint of a blemish on his earlier record. NBA team officials who scouted him found no evidence, other than the Dec. 21 incident, of a troubled man. On the contrary, every other report fairly glowed. So the Bulls drafted him and Dailey the next day came to Chicago, shorn of his burden and bright with optimism, to meet the press. Within an hour he had restored and compounded his misery.

Reporters asked Dailey if he ever thought about the woman he attacked and he said he didn't. He told them, "I have forgotten about the episode. When you've got other greater things ahead of you, I can put it behind me. Right now, it's forgotten."

Dailey says his aim at the press conference was to put the past behind him and to look to the future. It didn't come off that way. "Essentially, it came out that he had no remorse and he treated it (the conviction) very flippantly," said Chicago Tribune sports editor George Langford, who did not attend the press conference.

With a few words Dailey wove himself a new and uglier noose.

"Dailey a Sorry Character In Deed," was the headline in the Sun-Times, where columnist John Schulian wrote that Dailey's remarks sounded "as though he cut out his soul the night he cursed a woman with a lifetime of savage dreams."

Schulian's scathing attack concluded with a request to Bulls fans to "do more than refuse to watch (Dailey) play basketball. They can hate him. And well they should."

Langford, who oversaw his paper's coverage, said reporters "gave him several chances to come back" and address the issue of remorse, "but he almost went out of his way to go the other way."

Public response was immediate and devastating. Phone lines and the mail to the Bulls were swamped with protests. Women's groups took up the cause; ticket holders threatened to boycott. "One woman got on TV and said if Quintin Dailey comes to Chicago, every woman's life is in peril," said Woolf.

Three days later Dailey apologized for his remarks in a conversation with another Sun-Times reporter. But the damage was done and the smoldering remains of the firestorm of protest linger. Even the Bulls won't predict how it will end.

"People here got the impression he didn't really care and I can understand how they did," said Bulls General Manager Rod Thorn, who was at the press conference. "He does care but he wants to go on with his life. But it's tough. If you come to his defense it's like you're condoning rape."

Thorn said that "some potential (season) ticket holders might not sign up" if Dailey is signed to play. Asked if Dailey's value to the club is thus depreciated, Thorn said, "Probably, yes. This is a tough situation because of the publicity. We're getting calls from all over the country."

Added the Bulls' managing partner, Jonathan Kovler, when asked how recent events will affect Dailey's bargaining power, "We haven't talked about that yet. We're still kind of reeling."

The two incidents--the assault and Dailey's press conference--are shockers to those who know him. These people paint a picture of an extroverted, talented, responsible team player whose only flaw was a flagging interest in schoolwork as prospects for a lucrative pro careeer brightened.

"Before this incident I never saw him having any kind of problem," said USF Athletic Director Bill Fusco. Dailey's grades slipped some in his sophomore year, but "that's normal in an athlete staring at big sports money," Fusco said.

His high school coach, Ray Mullis, said Dailey could have had stronger disciplinary guidance at USF. "He lost his mom and dad (both to illness) between his sophomore and junior years of high school," Mullis said. Dailey was raised after that by an aunt in Baltimore.

"I don't think they had a tight rein on him out there (at USF)," said Mullis, who keeps in close contact with Dailey and saw him a week ago. "A kid that age is bound to get in trouble without a strong authority figure."

When asked to describe Dailey in high school, Mullis said: "In three years on the varsity he scored 2,844 points. He averaged 33 a game his last two years against as tough a competition as there is in the country. He was unstoppable."

Except, perhaps, by himself.

Dailey is in San Francisco, playing summer league recreation ball and avoiding the press. But he picked up the phone the other day when the recording was only half over, when it was still saying, "If you'll leave your name and number, I will return the . . . "

What happened in Chicago?

"I think they got the wrong opinion," said Dailey. "Going through a situation like I've been, I said I had no remorse. Basically I was happy. I was happy to be drafted.

"I was so happy it was unbelievable. Somebody had drafted me and I was so happy.

"They thought I was being slick, that I was happy because I got away with it. I was just happy to be picked and to be going on with my life.

"I'm not an animal. Nobody goes to court like I did and not feel remorse. You don't see no smiles . . . "

Was he misinterpreted?

"Yeah, but I don't think they (the press) knew what was going on. I think it was my fault. I shouldn't have been all happy and laughing and all."

Does the controversy imperil his chances of playing for the Bulls?

"I don't know. I'll have to wait and see. I'm going to play for them, if it happens . . . "

Is he sorry?

"I am sorry. I'm kind of shocked how the papers misinterpreted it. And I am truly remorseful. I had six months of it and I am sorry.

"Every day it's coming up. I have to deal with it. It's a problem and it's going to be dealt with as long as I'm alive."

Only time, now, will determine whether Dailey has scarred himself beyond redemption.

"I read every article and I believe it really makes a tough marketing problem for the Bulls," said Bob Ferry, general manager of the Washington Bullets and a keen observer of NBA life.

"And it makes it hard for the person to succeed. He's been publicly stoned; it's not for me to say not deservingly so." Added Ferry, "I don't think I've ever read anything more severe about anyone, anywhere--not about (presidential assailant John) Hinckley, not about the worst mass killer.

"It's a very tough situation," said Ferry. "Very tough for the Bulls, and for the player."